I was at a restaurant recently with Max, his dad, and his dad’s friend when the conversation turned to the sort of people who end up here in Washington. My idea of wonkish and visionary intelligence came up when I noted that this city, in my experience, has a lot of really smart people who, nevertheless, aren’t all that interested in big ideas. The people most likely to thrive here are technocrats, at levels ranging from the junior policy analyst to the upper-level managers of the federal agencies, not to mention the political parties and their respective machines. Not infrequently, they’re people who believe that the key to success is to stick with the thoughts that were thunk for them in their expensive master’s degree programs. And sure, in a bureaucracy, that’s often the key to advancement. As for the young critical thinkers—well, too often, they find that their stubborn pursuit of truth/sanity/a better world keeps them from getting invited to cocktail parties.
But that sort of stubbornness, I went on, was fundamental to Albert Einstein’s genius. Did you know that he initially struggled to find an academic job because he was loath to go along with the bureaucratic nonsense of credentialist gatekeepers? One could make a case that he was shooting himself in the foot unnecessarily there, but then, that same stubborn critical thinking also fueled his revolutionary scientific work, like when he called out flawed assumptions about the way light operates.
“Well, yeah, but that’s Einstein,” said Max’s dad. (He happens to be an astrophysicist who worked for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.) Einstein, he implied, is science’s high mark of genius, Time Magazine’s Person of the Twentieth Century! Surely you can’t can’t extrapolate much from Einstein that’s applicable to ordinary mortals, right?
“No, that’s just it!” I persisted. “Einstein himself said we shouldn’t think of it that way at all!” I’m not quoting directly from the book here (I was listening to it on CD during my commute and have since returned it to the library), but I recently finished Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe, which concludes by discussing the preservation of Einstein’s brain. Those who absconded with poor Al’s cerebrum hoped to study it to determine what made him so smart, ignoring the fact that Einstein himself said the answer wouldn’t be found in examining his brain, but by studying his behavior.
Which is precisely what Max’s dad offered as evidence of Einstein’s extraordinary nature: “He was a guy who, as a kid, said to himself, ‘I wonder what it would be like to ride on a beam of light.'”
“Yes, exactly!” I agreed. A key ingredient in Einstein’s genius was imagination, as he himself publicly stated. We could also call it imaginational overexcitability, in keeping with Dabrowski’s work. And is this really so rare? I mean, it appears to be somewhat unusual, but when it does emerge, we often stamp it out of people. We label it childish, a silly distraction from serious, pragmatic work. You might have some luck with it if you have access to capital and want to start a business, but if you’re interested in the civil service or elected office? Good luck, black sheep. Wonkish intelligence, after all, is the pinnacle of what most people believe intelligence looks like.
But how are ordinary people supposed to recognize a worthwhile vision? Typically, an expert’s peers assist in the creative process by recognizing the value of each new contribution. This is, of course, an important step in a healthy system. But we should remember that this process can go wrong, gummed up by institutional pressures, petty rivalries, powerful interests, and the like.
I’ll jump now from conversing with Max’s dad to one of Max’s high school buddies. This buddy is now an established research scientist; he has a Harvard degree and a professorship at a respected institution, and he does important research, which means he also spends a lot of his time working on grants. This friend agreed that the even in a room full of highly intelligent and well credentialed scientists, the decision whether to fund a grant may simply be based on whether the scientist is a big name, because it is otherwise pretty hard to determine whether an idea is worth pursuing or not. He’s on record as saying that to get anywhere, you have to suck up to the powerful.
Einstein refused to do so, and it did hold him back. It took him a very long time to get a doctorate and a professorship. The gatekeepers didn’t know at the time, clearly, that he would be the Person of the Century. Such people don’t look like what most of us expect them to look like. (And we’re not even talking about a field like politics where literal physical appearances matter.)
So Einstein got a job at the Swiss Patent Office, where he blew through his official work and then did his real work (which he kept stashed away in his desk and hid when the boss came by) during his nine-to-five job. That’s not unlike most of the people I know in DC (and virtually everywhere) who are trying to do their own creative work, though it’s hard to find a place as good as the patent office was for Einstein in terms of enabling creativity. (Many 40-hour jobs will invent work for you rather than letting you go home when you get the actual work done; others are really 60-hour jobs to begin with.)
Either way, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for going beyond the status quo.
Some days after that dinner, I stumbled across a fantastic article by the free-thinking physicist Lee Smolin, a string theory skeptic who is researching alternatives. Entitled Why No ‘New Einstein’?, he’s basically arguing that the wonks have taken over even theoretical physics, a field that has historically demanded a good dose of visionary intelligence. And they’ve done it through the control of institutions:
It follows that new Einsteins are unlikely to be easily characterized in terms of research programs that have been well explored for decades. Instead a new Einstein will be developing his or her own research program that, by definition, will be one that no senior person ever works on. . . . [And those talented young physicists] who follow large well-supported research programs have lots of powerful senior scientists to promote their careers. Those who invent their own research programs usually lack such support and hence are often undervalued and unappreciated. People with the uncanny ability to ask new questions or recognize unexamined assumptions, or who are able to take ideas from one field and apply them to another, are often at a disadvantage when the goal is to hire the best person in a given well-established area. In the present system, scientists feel lots of pressure to follow established research programs led by powerful senior scientists. Those who choose to follow their own programs understand that their career prospects will be harmed. That there are still those with the courage to go their own way is underappreciated.
When I read that, I thought, yep, that’s what Max’s friend was talking about. We praise Einstein, but if he showed up as a young man today, the established scientific community would be even less likely to hire him than it was in the early twentieth century, and the odds he’d wash out and end up a disillusioned paper pusher surfing the Net in the Patent Office are disturbingly high.
Let’s return now to Washington, DC, where, you will recall, I was talking to an astrophysicist about the intellectual climate of a city whose major industry is politics. Smolin’s critique of the physics community may be even more applicable to politics than to physics, because while power brokerage through access to institutional resources is a fact of life that scientists understand they must accept, in politics, people often forget that there’s anything more to life at all.
This, in turn, brought to mind the work of a professor of educational psychology by the name of Roland S. Persson who studies giftedness. Persson breaks gifted people into three types, which he colloquially calls heroes, nerds, and martyrs, and which correspond respectively to gifted people who contribute escapism, maintenance, and change to society. In other words, his nerds are my wonkishly intelligent techocrats who maintain the status quo; his heroes are those who entertain us and allow us to live vicariously through their skills in athletics, music, or the arts; and his martyrs are those with what I call visionary intelligence.
And, says Persson, they’re rarely trusted. They keep ticking off those emperors, pointing out their lack of clothing! It will not do if you need to get grant money, or climb in old boys’ clubs, or deal with any other entrenched power structure.
He elaborates on this in an interview with SENG:
If this individual is being contrary to the leadership, harassment and persecution are sure to follow in one way or another. Interestingly, it rarely matters whether the gifted individual is right or wrong; he or she poses a threat to the credibility of authority. Again, history is full of examples, and “martyr” is sadly an appropriate term.
The greater the prestige to be lost, the more severe the battle to retain dominance and authority. Or, as Ellen Winner (1996) put it: The gifted are risk-takers with a desire to shake things up. Most of all they have the desire to set things straight, to alter the status quo and shake up established tradition. Creators do not accept the prevailing view. They are oppositional and discontented.
Returning to our dinner conversation: Max’s dad’s buddy is a lawyer and an interesting and decent guy, though our views of politics are diametrically opposed. He served in the Reagan administration, and he thinks Bernie Sanders is an idiot.
“What has he gotten done in Congress?” he asked me. “NOTHING.”
Well, I conceded, it might be the Senate is not a good place for a visionary—particularly not a lone one. On the other hand, love him or hate him, surely you’d agree that Bernie’s had an impact, even if it’s not measurable with the same criteria. A better measure of his success would be the number of people he’s inspired to stubbornness.
If you read his biography, you’ll see that he didn’t have an easy time of it. It’s through a combination of luck and tenacity that he made it to the Senate. But under our plutocratic two-party system, for every political Einstein who makes it that far, hundreds more are surely pushing papers somewhere, stuck in a patent office with no way out.
So I’ve set out the problem, and I’ve not resolved it. But consider this the end merely of a chapter. In future posts, I’m going to try to find and study those few who do escape the patent office, how they break out, what hurdles they face, and whether any of them actually succeed, by any measure. I have reason to hope that we can learn something useful from them.
For now, let’s let Einstein have the last word. Enjoy this excerpt from one of his famous essays:
This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career. I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals.
From Why Socialism?
by Albert Einstein, May 1945